How we're failing Sandra Bland: Mainstream feminists need to do more to fight for women of color

Until recently, the Bland tragedy failed to elicit outrage among mainstream liberals, an all-too-often occurrence

Published July 24, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

Sandra Bland
Sandra Bland

Last week, the Center for Medical Progress released a nine-minute video clip, followed by another video clip a few days later, which purport to show that Planned Parenthood illegally sells tissue from aborted fetuses. Of course, it does not show that. Instead, the heavily edited clips show representatives of a fabricated medical research company in conversation with Planned Parenthood representatives about purchasing legally obtained fetal tissue for research. The unedited versions of the videos show both reps asserting that Planned Parenthood is not in the business of making money from these sales, and that they charge for the tissue to offset the costs they incur in the process of providing the tissue that goes on to enable life-saving medical research.

This is another in a long series of disingenuous attacks on Planned Parenthood, which offers health care services, including abortion, to millions of people each year. This “investigation” by the right-wing, anti-choice Center for Medical Progress  came with a singular goal: destroy Planned Parenthood and make it impossible for people around the country to access abortion care. Republicans have jumped on this fabricated opportunity as an excuse to push for even more abortion restrictions.

In the wake of these attacks, the feminist community sprang to action. Statements in support of Planned Parenthood began showing up on social media, and people were changing their photos to include an “#StandWithPP” image over their faces. In my social media community, this meant white women, women of color and LGBT folks alike were all asserting that they saw straight through this unfounded attack and stood in solidarity with Planned Parenthood.

While this conversation went on, questions began to surface about possible foul play in the death of Sandra Bland, a woman pulled over for failing to signal a lane change in Texas, and found hanged in her jail cell three days later. This time, the response was swift, and largely one sided: Led by Black people, social media erupted with #WhatHappenedToSandraBland, but, until quite recently, there a comparative silence from white feminists. A similar silence was notable when a Black teenager was assaulted by a white police officer at a pool party in McKinney, TX, earlier this summer.

Now of course, this is not to say that no white feminists have spoken up about these issues, but the disparity is clear. This raises the inevitable question: Why don’t mainstream/white feminist leaders and organizations (including those focused on reproductive rights) think that violence against women of color is an issue in their wheelhouse? What about mainstream anti-violence organizations and leaders that focus on violence against women, but are too often deafeningly silent when it comes to violence against women of color at the hands of the police?

Monica Raye Simpson, Executive Director of SisterSong, a women of color reproductive justice collective, told Salon,

“The fight for reproductive freedom in the country can not be void of a racial justice analysis. When our rights are being violated, when our bodies are being found dead in the street or jail cells, when our reproductive life is being debated or used against us or used to criminalize us, reproductive rights organizations need to use their access and platforms to amplify the voices of the most marginalized who are not always privileged to have their voices heard.”

This is especially true given the very complicated legacy of white feminists on the topic of race and reproduction, including that of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Sanger is documented making remarks about the importance of birth control and abortion in communities of color as a eugenic practice. This legacy, unaddressed, gives anti-choice organizations much room to maneuver in making disingenuous claims to abortion as an act of genocide.

Women of color fighting for access to control their bodies and their reproduction have time and again made their own case as to why abortion access is important to communities of color. Jasmine Burnett, Field Director for New Voices Pittsburgh, told Salon,

“Reproductive rights organizations led mainly by white feminists, have always had the complete support and solidarity of Black women. Conversely, Black women can’t say that the level of support we offer has been reciprocal. It’s those same very outspoken Black women, much like Sandra Bland, who need to hear more than #SayHerName or #BlackLivesMatter in speaking out publicly. [Our allies must work towards] elevating our voices, and expanding the resources for Black women, Black Trans women and women of color from reproductive rights organizations. We need them to be the echo chamber for our voices, our rights and supporters of our work as we define it.”

Yamani Hernandez, Executive Director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, makes the connection between reproductive healthcare and police violence a very clear one,

“As we stand in solidarity for bodily autonomy, let us not be exclusive in how we define it, and who has access to it. Let us understand that bodily autonomy is not limited to abortion, birth, and parenting but the ability to live at all, with freedom of violence.”

Ultimately though, this is an instructive moment for the feminist movement. What does solidarity with Black and Brown women look like right now? Where are the progressive leaders of the feminist movement on the question of violence against women of color, Black women in particular? What does a solidarity politic entail?

First, surely, it includes ending the silence. This is the lowest bar of solidarity – statements of concern and support. Important, but merely first. Ensuring the leadership of women of color is also key. Our leadership, supported and vigorously backed by our white allies, is paramount to ensuring the kinds of strategic shifts we need to integrate a racial justice lens in our work for bodily autonomy and freedom from coercion and violence. Then, perhaps, comes an integration of the issues faced by women of color into the agenda of white feminist leaders and organizations. Adding state violence to the list of unacceptable violence and then crafting policy objectives and advocacy strategies to reflect as much. There is much work to be done, and movements like Black Lives Matter are growing and changing our national conversation about race and violence. Integration of a racial justice agenda into mainstream feminism is about more than a lowest-common-denominator attempt at inclusivity – it’s about building a feminist movement that will last, grow, and ultimately make the kind of change in our society that will prevent what happened to Sandra Bland from happening to other women.

By Eesha Pandit

Eesha Pandit is a writer and activist based in Houston, TX. You can follow her on twitter at @EeshaP, and find out more about her work at

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Feminism Intersectionality Misogyny Racism Sandra Bland Sexism Violence Against Women Women Of Color